How to Sleep Better on the Night Shift
Table of Contents
It’s always exciting to land a new job or start a new career. But what about when it’s the night shift? Is there a way to reset the body’s internal clock to adjust to this major change?
Unlike owls and other nighttime critters, we’re not nocturnal animals wired to sleep during the day and stay up through the night. It can take some time, but there are ways to help your body adjust to a new sleep schedule so you can sleep better on the night shift. With a few behavioral modifications, you can get a good night’s sleep during the daytime. Here’s how.
Tips for How to Sleep Better on the Night Shift
The light of day can energize us and remind us that it’s the wake portion of our sleep-wake cycle. “You really want to avoid exposure to sunlight after your shift because that’s going to really try to push your rhythm back into the daytime rhythm,” says Dr. Scott Hollingshaus, Chief of Sleep Management with the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System.
A good way to avoid exposure to sunlight is by throwing on a pair of sunglasses before you leave work, though we don’t recommend this while you’re driving home in order to remain alert. If you have a ride or are taking public transportation, on the other hand, wear a pair of dark shades and keep them on until you arrive home.
Trick Your Body
The key to sleeping better on the night shift is to try to adhere to as normal a bedtime routine as possible. “It sounds so silly and so basic, but treat your nights like you would a day. Except it’s reverse,” says Alie Atkins, a Sleepopolis SEO associate who spent most of her seven years in nursing on the night shift. “So think of your 8 p.m. like your 8 a.m., and think of your midnight like your noon time.”
For instance, if you drink sleepytime tea before you go to bed, then drink it when you get home from your night shift. Is a warm bath typically part of your bedtime routine? Then draw yourself a bath before going to bed in the morning. The best thing you can do is follow the same nighttime routine you normally would, even if you’re on the opposite schedule.
“I’d get home, I’d wind down, I would take a hot shower to kind of put me in that sleepy mood, have lots of low lighting,” says Atkins. “I did all the things I would do at night time to wind down, just during the day.”
Avoid Sugary Foods and Caffeine
Be sure to avoid anything that’s likely to keep you awake, like sugar and caffeine. Research suggests that sugar intake negatively impacts our sleep quality.
Likewise, caffeine is a stimulant that affects everyone differently. If you’re sensitive to caffeine, it could keep you awake even if you consumed it much earlier in the day. In general, try to avoid eating at least three hours before you go to sleep and nix the caffeine at least six hours before bedtime.
Avoid Daytime Activities
When you get off work, wind down. Avoid vacuuming the house or doing other physically demanding household chores that will keep you awake.
While some moderate exercise before bed is okay, vigorous activity should be avoided at least one hour before bedtime. Those who do engage in high-intensity exercise within an hour of bedtime stay awake longer and have poorer quality sleep.
Try to relax and get yourself mentally prepared to go to bed instead.
Keep Your Bedroom Cool
Keeping your bedroom cooler could help you sleep better. While bedroom temperature preferences vary and the thickness of your bedding and pajamas can come into play, it’s usually a good idea to keep your bedroom temperature somewhere between 60 and 67 degrees when you’re trying to go to sleep.
Try to get in a relaxed state of mind as you prepare for bed. While we recommend you avoid power yoga or any strenuous activity, doing some mindful meditation or breathing exercises could help calm and soothe you, enabling you to get better rest.
Child’s pose, for instance, is a yoga pose designed to relax the body and mind, and is relatively easy to execute. The locust is another popular yoga pose that’s easy to do and will put you in a relaxed, meditative state of mind.
Artificial light — and blue light, which is emitted from most screens and certain lights — can inhibit sleep, so try to avoid watching TV at least an hour before bedtime. If you usually go to bed with the TV as part of your bedtime routine, Atkins suggests setting a timer. “You’re falling asleep and then that blue light is essentially shutting off at a certain point,” said Atkins.
Likewise, resist the urge to check your phone right before bed. If you’re able to unplug, consider placing your phone face down or setting it to ‘do not disturb’ so you’ll avoid seeing it light up with any incoming messages or notifications.
Block Out the Noise
Remember, most people are going to be awake when you’re settling in for bed. You’re likely to hear the neighbor’s lawn mower, city traffic, or other common daytime sounds. Consider using earplugs or a white noise machine to drown them out. Mack’s Ultra Soft Foam earplugs are made with soft foam that expands to fit your ear, making them an ideal solution for blocking out noise while sleeping.
If you prefer not to wear earplugs, you can also play music or wear headphones if you sleep with a companion. Many on the market are designed specifically to help you sleep better. Remember, if you wear headphones at night there are some best practices to follow, such as keeping them below a certain volume, and some health risks to keep in mind.
In addition to white noise, there are other colors of noise that could help you fall asleep. For instance, gray noise is soft and quiet like rain, while pink noise is calming like the sound of rustling leaves.
Use Blackout Curtains
“Blackout curtains are a huge, huge, huge help,” says Atkins. But rather than using blackout curtains just in the bedroom, Atkins recommends using them throughout your home to create a dim, night-like environment. As one 2016 study demonstrates, continuous exposure to darkness can boost our melatonin levels, which regulates sleep. If your entire home is dark, it will be easier to trick your mind into thinking it really is time for bed.
Tips for Waking Up for (or after) the Night Shift
Take a Cold Shower
It can be difficult for any of us to get out of bed when we first wake up, but there are some things you can do to jolt yourself into action. Taking a cold shower can help you quickly rouse yourself awake. Research shows that a cold shower can increase our heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, and metabolism. The end result is that we’re more alert, so taking a quick cold shower can be an excellent way to start the day.
Get Natural Sunlight
Just as you should try to avoid exposure to sunlight right before you go to sleep, you should open up all the curtains to let the light in when you’re trying to awaken. Exposure to sunshine can wake us up in a flash since exposure to light has an effect on our circadian rhythm. Creating a naturally bright environment is one of the best ways to awaken our bodies and mentally prepare ourselves to start the day.
For shift workers looking to wake up before the night shift, exposure to light can be instrumental in having a successful shift. One 2023 study showed that light exposure in the evening — ahead of the night shift — reduced errors by a whopping 67 percent thanks to reduced fatigue and sleepiness.
Have Caffeine 90 Minutes After Waking Up
If you’re a coffee drinker or enjoy other caffeinated beverages, it’s natural to reach for that pick-me-up as you roll out of bed. But be sure to wait 90 minutes or so before having your daily jolt of java. Research shows our cortisol levels peak about 30 to 45 minutes after we wake up, but then drop rapidly several hours after and slowly decline the rest of the day. Since cortisol is a stress hormone that can make us feel more alert, the optimal time to have your cup of coffee is when your cortisol levels are lower.
Exercise Before Work
Maintaining an overall healthy diet will help us feel better in general. Working out or doing some other type of physical activity to get your blood flowing is also a good natural way to wake up and be energized for the rest of the day.
Exercise increases your core body temperature, which is a signal to your body’s internal clock that it’s time to be awake. In addition to having the immediate benefit of making us more alert, frequent exercise can decrease our risk of insomnia and lead to improved sleep quality.
What Are the Risks of Working the Night Shift?
“There is an increased risk for certain cancers,” says Hollingshaus, citing breast cancer in women and rectal cancer among the general population. Research suggests that female night shift nurses, for instance, have an increased risk for breast cancer after working the night shift for extended periods of time.
If you are a longtime night shift worker and have concerns, schedule regular appointments with your primary care physician for preventative screening.
Night shift work can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes. Similar to the studies on cancer, research suggests your risk increases the longer you remain on the night shift.
But some research suggests there are ways to counteract the risk. One small study found that eating meals only during the daytime could prevent high blood sugar, and another study involving firefighters working 24-hour shifts found they could use time-restricted eating (in this case, only eating within a 10-hour window) to improve cardiometabolic health.
Hollingshaus recommends night shift workers regulate meals in general. ”Keeping those rather standard will help in making that shift,” he says.
Fatigue can lead to mistakes, which could result in workplace accidents. One study shows that night shift work can impair performance to a degree equivalent to a blood alcohol level greater than 0.1 percent.
Hollingshaus also notes that your risk of automobile accidents increases when you work the night shift. Because workers driving after a night shift can be drowsy and less alert, they experience increased risk for a crash or near-crash incident.
If you feel fatigued after working the night shift, avoid driving and instead try to arrange a ride home.
Does Working the Night Shift Affect Mental Health?
Working the night shift could mean we’re able to do less at home. “Because of circadian rhythms, people who work night shift are less productive in general,” says Hollingshaus. However, it’s important to give yourself a little grace, suggests Atkins.
“You’re going to have to acknowledge that you’re going to be tired once you start doing this,” she says. “It’s not going to be an easy switch. Try to give yourself patience.”
Depression and Anxiety
Working the night shift could mean social isolation and less time with loved ones, which could lead to depression or anxiety. “There are certainly compromises in social activities, so there’s higher risk for mental health disorders,” says Hollingsworth.
One way to put yourself on a more normal social schedule is to sleep in shifts. This can also be beneficial if you find yourself waking up earlier than usual. Hollingshaus recommends getting an anchor sleep of at least four hours and then napping later in the day for additional rest. Research suggests that our body can get into a 24-hour rhythm if we have an anchor sleep lasting at least four hours that is taken regularly, even if our second sleep period occurs irregularly.
There is a link between sleep deprivation and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), though it’s unclear if PTSD is a cause or consequence of sleep deprivation.
If you have concerns about your mental health, speak with a doctor. You can also talk to your management to see if adjustments or accommodations can be made for you at work.
What is Shift Work Sleep Disorder?
Shift Work Sleep Disorder, also called night shift fatigue syndrome, is a condition that results from work during irregular or abnormal hours. It’s characterized by an inability to sleep, followed by fatigue that impairs your ability to function.
Allow yourself time to adjust to your new schedule. “We can’t diagnose Shift Work Sleep Disorder unless someone has had the symptoms for at least three months in association with a work shift change,” says Hollingshaus. In the meantime, the best thing a night shift worker can do is work to adjust to their new schedule.
Last Word from Sleepopolis
Ultimately, the best thing you can do to sleep better on the night shift is be patient and find what works best for you. Through trial and error, you can get better sleep and become more accustomed to your new sleep schedule. And as Atkins says, it’s most important to be gentle with yourself.
“You just have to have a lot of grace with yourself and say, ‘It will get better once I get used to this.’”